The Brooklyn Fair To Aid Union Soldiers During the U.S. Civil War

“Anything for me, if you please?” – Post Office of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, engraving by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1964
“‘Anything for me, if you please?’ by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864

Brooklyn, February 1864. A young woman steps up to the Post Office counter and asks “Anything for me, if you please?”

Is she hoping for a letter from a brother, husband, or ‘beau’ who is serving in the Grand Army of the Republic? Is he in the field, waiting for action? Or in a hospital recovering from battle wounds (perhaps from Gettysburg, which took place 7 months earlier)? Or does she have a sister or aunt working as a nurse in a military hospital?

Close inspection will reveal an important clue: the sign above her reads “Sanitary Fair.” The tiny caption reveals much more: “Post-office of the Brooklyn Fair in aid of the Sanitary Commission.” So it appears that she is at event called the “Sanitary Fair” in Brooklyn. In the background to her right, other women are writing or reading letters, perhaps writing to friends or relatives about the amazing things they saw at the Brooklyn Fair (i.e., spreading FOMO via letter).

I owe my discovery of this image to a Twitter bot that specializes in Winslow Homer’s art tweeted one of this Harper’s magazine engraving. The engraving is called “Anything for me, if you please?” and it appeared in the March 5, 1864 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Fairs To Aid The Sanitary Commission

Let’s back up a bit (imagine truck backing up sounds): what is a Sanitary Fair? I know a bit about American history, but had never heard of the Sanitary Fairs until I discovered a poster about a 3,930 Pound Block of Cheese.

Sanitary Fairs were fundraisers held in the North during the United States Civil War to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission, a government-authorized organization that focused on the health of Union soldiers. The Commission didn’t receive government funds, so the it relied on donations from the public to fulfill its mission. (Many more details about the Sanitary Commission are in my post about the 3,930 Pound Block of Cheese.)

Starting in 1863, one of the main strategies of the Commission was to hold Fairs in large cities across the Union — Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, and so forth — where admission fees were charged, displays were set up, goods offered for sale, and donations requested. Overall, the Sanitary Fairs collected more than $2.7 million (that’s about $45 million in 2021 dollars)1.

Scenes From The Brooklyn Fair

A bit of searching led me to the full text of that issue of Harper’s Weekly (published 157 years ago!) at the Internet Archive. The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair is one of the featured topics of the week, so the issue has a number of illustrations and a short description of the happenings, which I summarize as2:

  • “The buildings occupied by the Fair comprise the Academy of Music and Knickerbocker Hall, on one side of Montague Street [at Clinton Street], and two large buildings on the opposite side.”
  • “By way of hint it may be said that there are more than 10,000 sofa-cushions, and a lady of a mathematical turn of mind assures us that there is a pin-cushion for every pin in the city.”
  • An Art Gallery of paintings
  • A Department of Manufactures and Mechanic Arts
  • A “New England Kitchen” with the “national delicacies” like crackers, doughnuts, molasses, pies, pickles, apple-sauce, pork and beans, cider, and the like.
  • Fashion is all around: “If any man wishes to know just how his grandmother appeared when she made captive the youthful heart of his respected grandfather, he has only to look at the fair attendants, who are arrayed in the garb of the last century [the 1700s]. It is an odd sight; but our belles in their hoops, etc., will look quite as oddly to their grandchildren.”
  • A museum that contains “a beautiful arrangement of flags and war materials from Navy-yard, and another a collection of flags captured by the rebels.”
  • But did they have a multi-thousand-pound block of cheese like the San Francisco Fair did later in the year? Harper’s doesn’t mention one.
Engraving showing scenes from the Brooklyn Fair In Aid Of The Sanitary Commission, from Harper's Weekly, March 5 1864
Scenes from the Brooklyn Fair In Aid Of The Sanitary Commission, Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864
Engraving showing the museum portion from scenes from the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair engraving in Harper's Weekly, March 5 1864-2
The museum area at the Brooklyn Fair to Aid the Sanitary Commission, Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1864

Echoes of Today’s E-Commerce in an 1864 Classified Notice

A month earlier, the B.T. Babbitt company took out a classified notice in Harper’s to advertise a special deal on Soap (capitalized for some reason) that we see in today’s e-commerce:

  • Your purchases will help a charity: For every 10 boxes purchased by the public, the B.T. Babbitt company will donate one box to the Sanitary Fair (It’s not clear what happens next. Will the soap be sold at the fair? Or shipped to a Sanitary Commission outpost for use there?)
  • Free shipping: “the Soap will be delivered at your residence…free of express charge”

On the other hand, something you might not see these days: 100 pound (45 kg) boxes of soap! That seems like a lot of soap. How much space would 100 pounds take up? The density of Ivory soap is about 0.932 g/cm3, so a 45 kg block would have a volume of approximately 48.8 liters (12.8 gallons)3. In standard bar form, that’s about 500 bars 4.

I don’t know much about housekeeping in the 1860s, but my guess is that most people didn’t have the wide variety of soap that we see today — bath soap, face soap, dish washing soap, automatic dishwasher soap, laundry detergent, and various household cleaners. Thinking of it in that way, 100 pounds doesn’t seem so strange: a household of four people today might have 100 pounds scattered through the house5.

Ad for BT Babbitt Soap in Harper's Weekly, February 6, 1864
Soap company donates to the Sanitary Commission, Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1864

Image Credits

This post was inspired by a Tweet from the Winslow Homer art bot.

Notes

  1. See page 483 and 550 in History of the United States Sanitary Commission, Being the General Report of Its Work During the War of the Rebellion, by Charles J. Stillé, 1866. From archive.org. Inflation calculations from Robert Sahr’s inflation data at Oregon State University. and the CPI inflation calculator at BLS.
  2. Harper’s Weekly full summary of the Brooklyn Fair.
  3. Source: Density of Soap at the Physics Factbook, edited by Glenn Elert.
  4. One bar of Ivory soap is 3.17 ounces (90 g).
  5. Of course, some of these modern products contain water along with the cleaning agent, unlike 1860s soap, which was solid in form.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this fascinating history of a past tradition to support our communities and soldiers. I am curious if someone did receive an equivalent amount of 500 bars of soap, could they use it, sell it, give it as gifts. I will appreciate these queries as I go off to sleep. Blessings!

  2. Thanks for commenting! I wish I knew the answer to your curiosity, but the documents I have seen do not explain how the soap would be distributed, what form it is in (is a 100 pound order of soap made up of bars, or large blocks which would be cut by the new owner?).

    Your comment led me to look at B. T. Babbitt more closely, and it turns out that B. T. Babbitt was quite an impressive person — numerous patents, owner of many factories, innovator in advertising, the namesake of Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel “Babbitt.” I’m starting to collect materials for a future post on Babbitt that will have more images from the 1800s.

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